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Atmosphere in Games - Part 9 - Narrative, Script and Voice Acting

Part 9 in a 10-part series about atmosphere in games - what it is, how to improve it, and how it breaks down into the various aspects of a game.

Matthew Bentley, Blogger

October 9, 2013

7 Min Read

We've all heard terrible voice-acting. We've all read terrible dialogue. I'm not sure which is worse, but obviously something's got to be done about it. You can't just walk out of a programming course and decide to write dialogue, but of course this is what many games developers do. And it shows. Unfortunately due to the relative youngness of the games industry compared to other media, the dividing lines between people specializing in different areas have only just begun to become opaque.

A lot of indie game developers tend to settle on dialogue that's "good enough" rather than getting someone decent to do it. But why should dialogue, or language, or the crafting of it, be of any less importance to games than art? We don't jump into games development and assume that without a background in art, we'll necessarily be able to develop the stuff ourselves (unless it's pixel-art). Why should dialogue be any different? Sure, we all converse in everyday life, but there's a character mindset and an ability to place yourself in another's shoes which comes with the drama of being a writer - a drama that not just anybody can do well. Myself, I can write well enough. But I know my weaknesses. All my characters tend to sound similar, and I have a tendency to dramatize that doesn't work for everyone.

If you are on a budget, and have to write your own dialogue, for gods sake - bounce it off someone you respect. There's nothing worse than a great game where the dialogue just completely ruins the sense of immersion, or worse, takes that sense of immersion in a direction you don't really want to go in. Take Sword and Sworcery, for example. It doesn't come off as a conscious decision to go for snazzy, cynically-postmodern dialogue, but let's say, for the sake of argument, that it was. It completely ruined the sense of immersion. The player is just starting to get into the mood of the place, it's visuals and most importantly music, then BAM. These happen:

You see what just happened there? The developers threw a 'nudge nudge wink wink' see we all know it's a game kind of line to the audience, which unfortunately does two things: 1. Breaks the fourth wall and the player's sense of immersion (and enjoyment) 2. Makes the story text not into something that fits within the game, but into a conversation between the developer and the player. It's like having someone standing over your shoulder cynically laughing at the pretense of the game while talking to you, and again, this is immersion-breaking. So make your game text fit the style of the game. Make it fit the mood of the game. Preferably, make it take the mood of the game and take it up to that next level, rather than breaking it.

Secondly, voice-acting. I've heard a few indie projects, and a few voiceovers for game demos, that sound like they were recorded in someone's basement, by the developer, which is fine. If that's what you gotta do, then do it. But it's best to get people - anybody who can act, really - to voice the parts. Why not? Most actors don't or can't do it for a living, and are happy to be part of something bigger. Just reach out. Good voice-acting can really  bring a character to life, or make it worse. A good example of both of these are in Star Control 2, or at least the versions of it which include voiceovers. The Pkunk race, for example, has marvelous voiceovers, which make the dialogue much funnier and give a clearer impression of the character of the species:

On the other hand, the voiceover acting for the Utwig, another starfaring race, makes the dialogue almost unbearable to listen to, and does not even remotely match the tone of the text. If you can sit through it, you're a better man/woman than I am:

Congratulations, you just sat through a couple of the best and worst examples of voice acting in the history of gaming. I could ring up a list of bad voiceacting examples, but others have already done that for me. Nothing here that isn't common sense - if it doesn't sound true, it breaks the atmosphere and the environment.

Lastly, good narrative. Good, strong narrative. Good, strong, meaningful, witty, interesting narrative. Damn it's hard to write those. It is really, really hard to write good narrative for games. Because most of the kinds of tropes that can be exploited for the kinds of games mechanics that we currently know, have already been explored to their fullest extent. Also, player choice and meaningful decision-making are really hard to do without breaking a linear narrative into two or more separate paths, which in turn increases game development costs. SO the same linear, passable narratives tend to get explored time and time again - save the girl, rescue the princess, kill the bad guy(s), stop the unstoppable evil, save the world from absolute extinction, revel in your own glory while killing people, etc, etc, etc.

There's only so much you can do with a medium which seems custom-built for expanding on a player's sense of their own agency in the world - and because repetition causes gentrification and in turn, a sense of detachment from a world or story, this is obviously bad for atmosphere. The most sensible thing you can do, if you're interested in interesting and immersive narrative, is to do things that haven't been done before, or do them in a way which is uncommon, or which screws with player preconceived notions of where a story is going, to play the gamer's expectations against themselves. Nothing spells out 'I just messed with your head' like the 'alternative' ending for Braid, where instead of rewarding intense obsession and introversion, you find a more emotional draining and metaphorically dire outcome. Here, the player learns or interprets something new about themselves, or just plotzes over the new and unexpected interpretations that the new ending brings.


Games which're good at this:

  • Pretty much anything by Double-Fine: Brutal Legend, Psychonauts, etc. Even if the gameplay isn't always amazing, the narrative and dialogue are usually intriguing and unique, and well-acted.

  • Star Control 2 - Hard not to pick this again. Intriguing story, for the most part good-adequate voice-acting, and funny, hilarious dialogue.

  • Spec Ops the Line - Although the dialogue itself is fairly mundane, as is the voice-acting, the narrative both shocks the player out of their familial tropes, and at the same time criticizes those tropes. Classic bait-and-switch.

  • Mass Effect Series - Pretty good stories. Great characters and stellar voice-acting. The dialogue? Below.

  • Chrono Trigger - The dialogue itself was OK, but the narrative was the only thing that kept me playing the entire way through this turn-based game - and this is coming from someone who generally hates turn-based games.


Games which're bad at this:

  • Sword and Sworcery - See Above. I would've been 10-times more sold on that game if it had rewarded the player's immersion by further enhancing the mood, rather than being too cynical to care.

  • Mass Effect Series - It's not that the dialogue is bad, it's just unrealistic and therefore immersion-breaking. Virtually every character in the games talks to you and reveals their entire life stories as if they've known you their entire lives. No-one has the kind of natural reserve we observe in real life people - even if they're aliens, they're still human-esque personalities, yet somehow every single one of them talks to you not as a person, but as some kind of information-gathering reptile.

  • Painkiller - Luckily, we were too busy enjoying the ridiculous gameplay and over-the-top spectacle to really care how shabby, derivative and pants-on-head idiotic the storyline, acting and dialogue were. Thank goodness for that!


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